Let’s talk about sex Bible-style.
The best material we’ve got to go on is the erotic love poem found the Old Testament called The Song of Songs. It is an extended liturgical poem that expresses the strong, urgent, romantic love between a man and a woman.
Karl Barth once noted that in the creation narratives in Genesis 1 and 2, we hear the voice of the man indicating his desire for a partner, but we never hear the woman speak. It might be implied that she is equally desirous of her mate, but she never gets to express it.
Barth says all that changes in the Song of Songs. In Genesis, we might guess that men and women are equally attracted to each other, but the Song confirms it. In spite of the curse of sin and the resulting disharmony between human beings, the ideal presented in this beautiful love poem is that best sexual relations take place between equals who are mutually committed to each other.
The man isn’t pleasured by a silent woman. Both voices express their ardor urgently and insistently:
Woman: Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth—
for your love is more delightful than wine…
Take me away with you—let us hurry!
Let the king bring me into his chambers. (1:2, 4)
Man: Your stature is like that of the palm,
and your breasts like clusters of fruit.
I said, “I will climb the palm tree;
I will take hold of its fruit.”
May your breasts be like clusters of grapes on the vine,
the fragrance of your breath like apples,
and your mouth like the best wine. (7:7-9)
While not being crude or pornographic, they are nonetheless explicit in their descriptions of each other’s bodies. There’s no secret as to what this couple desire to do with each other:
My beloved thrust his hand through the latch-opening;
my heart began to pound for him.
I arose to open for my beloved,
and my hands dripped with myrrh,
my fingers with flowing myrrh,
on the handles of the bolt.
I opened for my beloved… (5:4-6)
Phew! Every possible metaphor is used describe their sexual fascination with each other – colors, perfumes, spices, flowers, fruit, fields, budding vines, luxuriant gardens. If they had trains back then they’d describe one going into a tunnel. It is as if their desire for each other has opened their senses to the world around them, heightening their appreciation of every sensual delight. Rather than becoming completely preoccupied with each other, their love opens their eyes to a renewed vision of God’s creativity and goodness.
All the stories you’ve heard (whether true or not) about Christian missionaries during the Victorian era teaching Africans the ‘proper’ sexual etiquette are a blight. The so-called ‘missionary position,’ which reinforces the male’s static, ordered domination of his partner, has little to do with the celebration of orgasmic sex-play described in Song of Songs.
Moreover, the woman often boasts of her erotic lovelife to her friends. And they in turn praise her beauty and her good fortune in securing so satisfying a lover. In many respects, the passion of the couple’s love is a shared thing. It is a cause for celebration and collective joy. These days, good Christians don’t ever talk about their sex life, but these lovers never shut up about it! Of course, we live in a time when people’s every private moment is Instagrammed and all experience is commodified into images and shared endlessly on social media. Maybe we ought to encourage lovers to exult, to speak frankly and openly to trusted friends.
God transcends sex, but the biblical writers dare to use themes of sex and marriage as metaphors for portraying God’s deep and abiding love for us. God initiates and passionately pursues us. And our longing to enjoy his sublime presence can be eloquently and powerfully expressed by the woman’s words in Song of Songs.
Saint Teresa of Avilla was a 16th century Spanish nun whose erotically intense visions of Christ clearly illustrate this. Describing Jesus as “marvelously beautiful” and carrying a spear, which he thrust into her, Teresa wrote, “When he drew out the spear he seemed to be drawing my entrails with it, leaving me all on fire with a wondrous love for God. The pain was so great that it caused me to utter several moans; and yet so exceeding sweet is this greatest of pains that it is impossible to desire to be rid of it, or for the soul to be content with less than God.”
The correlation between sex and grace is a complex, but beautiful one.
Having sex according to the Bible involves grace – treating each other mutually, generously, respectfully. Indeed, valuing each other’s willingness to give and receive love are acts of grace. Enjoying togetherness and allowing separateness take grace on the part of each lover. And sexual experimentation, heightening the senses, inviting the erotic, will open us to experience the good graces God has sown into the world.
Basically, the Song of Songs shows us that the grace that forms human partnerships and is the glue of human community (true human love), and the grace that sustains the whole of creation (divine love), is the one gift of God. In fact, it is the most sublime gift of all. A heightened awareness of one should stimulate a heightened awareness of the other.
The unknown poet who wrote the Song offers this profound yet simple piece of advice in Chapter 5:
Eat, friends, and drink;
drink your fill of love. (5:1)
And that about sums it up. Drink your fill of love. Both human love and divine, one the mirror of the other. The pursuit of God is a noble cause, as is the pursuit of wholesome sex with an equal partner in a lifelong union. Eat them. Drink them. They will sustain you.